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Las Vegas Republican Debate – ‘Fight Night in Vegas’ Results in Split-Decision

This is fight night in Vegas all over again,’ I thought, watching seven Republican presidential candidates duke-it-out (rhetorically, at least) during Tuesday night’s CNN/Western Republican debate.

There were jabs, body blows, upper cuts, left-right combinations, and even… plenty of low blows. The best of fight referees would have had trouble keeping a hold on these people, and there would have been plenty of time spent in their respective corners for several of them (for bad behavior) – with lectures to match.

Tuesday’s pre-debate hype didn’t quite match that of Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvelous Marvin Hagler (in 1987, of course) – but the intensity was almost the same.

And there was a heavy dose of animosity -- especially between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Quite frankly, the ‘meanest’ debate sequence I’ve ever seen.

True to predictions, CNN’s liberal debate moderator, Anderson Cooper, did his best to foster an antagonistic and competitive environment – and Cooper did just about everything to stir up trouble by asking pointed questions meant to get the Republicans back to beating each other up.

‘He said this about you… what do you say in reply?’

The only thing missing was a boxing ring and gloves – maybe those will be the props for the next CNN debate.

Nevada’s sick economy overshadowed the glittering lights

There perhaps isn’t a more appropriate location in America for a presidential debate than Las Vegas, Nevada – a city and state that’s been rocked by the bursting of the housing bubble and unemployment rates that are among the highest in the country. Nevada’s gaming industry remains healthy, yet the state’s housing vacancy and foreclosure rates are dragging down the local economy like nothing else.

Of course, Nevada is the home of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a figurehead of everything that’s wrong with corrupted Big Government. The state’s voters returned him for another six years last November, a plague that the rest of the country won’t soon forget.

All the glitter of the Las Vegas Strip cannot hide the fact that Nevada’s in deep trouble – a shining symbol of cultural excess that’s come back to bite it. “Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” is the popular slogan – and that likely includes a sincere desire to leave the region’s sorry economy behind.

Politically speaking, the highest stakes going into Tuesday’s debate involved the two co-front-runners, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain – and a “side show” question of whether Gov. Rick Perry could regain some of the momentum that he brought to the race just over two months ago.

The extreme volatility of the contest is characterized by Perry (and perhaps Michele Bachmann, who enjoyed a similar rise and fall), a man who entered carrying the high expectations of the conservative grassroots and has failed to meet them on the campaign trail -- and especially in the several debates since that time.

Cain, on the other hand, literally leapt on the scene after winning the Florida Straw poll last month, jumping from single-digits in the polls to his current position in the high 20’s. Cain’s dynamic personality and endearing personal story (having risen from poverty in the segregated South to head major corporations – and then survive cancer) finally paid off with something more tangible than tacit praise from his Tea Party followers.

I think it’s safe to say no one was more surprised to find himself at the top of the polls than Herman Cain. Cain has insisted from the beginning that he’s “in it to win it,” a statement that would hardly seem necessary unless he didn’t consider himself in competition with the others in the first place.

You don’t see Rick Santorum saying he’s “in it to win it,” for example – but maybe he’s just being honest about the fact that he has virtually no chance. But then again, with the way the race is going this year, who’s to say that even Santorum might be the next to take his turn as the leading “not-Romney” candidate.

Yet another interesting factor heading into the debate was the introduction (on Monday) of Ron Paul’s economic plan, a political blockbuster that proposed eliminating several federal departments and would balance the budget in TWO years. For those looking for serious spending cuts, Paul’s your man – and who’s to doubt that he would carry out his promises down the barrel of a veto pen.

As would be expected, the media vastly underreported Paul’s “radical” proposals – likely because they, and the Republican establishment – still don’t take Paul seriously. Paul’s supporters always give him an enthusiastic round of applause, but the noise and respect seem to stop there.

It’s a shame. Paul’s foreign policy views preclude him from earning more esteem from a wider audience (for example, Paul suggested that he would not have intervened to help Great Britain against the Nazis). Paul’s ideas are sincere and a good many would agree that he’s welcome to them, but bring up Hitler and “don’t get involved” and he automatically looks like an isolationist nutcase.

After it was all said and done, the Las Vegas Republican brawl was a draw – leaving each competitor bloodied, but everyone still standing.

Herman Cain…. Did I really say that?

As a person who’s made a career out of speaking extemporaneously in a motivating fashion to a variety of different audiences, it certainly appears that Herman Cain can’t always recall, precisely, what he says.

In addition to his decades as a successful business executive, Cain’s also an Associate Pastor at his church – which means he’s able to organize thoughts in a rhetorical fashion to the point where it sounds good… pleasing to the ear, almost providing a ‘thrill’ in the way that a gifted preacher would give (many would say Obama has this quality too, though only with his teleprompter and pre-written speeches).

To anyone who’s seen Mike Huckabee deliver a full-length speech, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Speeches are presented without reliance on notes, appear to be memorized, and with an almost rhythmic raising and lowering of the voice to add emphasis.

Cain’s is a gift, definitely – but it also can get him in trouble when he’s asked to explain a statement that he hadn’t really thought through when he uttered it. That was evident on Tuesday night when Cain was asked to expound on two points: first, his original impression of TARP, and then later on, when he was asked about hostage negotiations with terrorists.

Cain obviously has a tremendous memory, but he almost looks taken aback when asked to explain a statement -- kind of like, “did I really say that? Well, this is what I meant to say….”

Every politician gets caught in that trap – but as a political novice who’s just now hit the big-time – Cain’s going through some growing pains.

Ron Paul also made Cain look a little foolish when they were asked about the validity of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ crowd. At the Values Voter Summit, Cain had the audience whipped to a frenzy when cutting into the Leftist protestors, but his catch-phrases (“They should be protesting at the White House, not on Wall Street”) fell short in Vegas.

Paul correctly pointed out that Wall Street and the banks were just as complicit in the bailout culture in America as the politicians in Washington – a point Cain couldn’t really counter.

Cain is far from finished – but if he wants to remain the populists’ choice, he’d better learn to refine his message. A charismatic figure can only survive so long on speeches alone – just ask Barack Obama.

Down Goes Romney! Down Goes Romney!

This was the first Republican debate that Mitt Romney clearly didn’t win. Mitt’s notorious calm demeanor was shaken on numerous occasions, spurned on primarily by Rick Perry – but also by Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich of all people.

The candidates have certainly asked the former Massachusetts governor about ‘Romneycare’ in every debate thus far, but this was the first time they really got after him on the issue. “Your plan is essentially one more big government, bureaucratic (monstrosity)… there’s a whole lot more big government there than your campaign has admitted,” Gingrich challenged.

Santorum almost sounded apologetic in accusing Romney of starting the whole individual-mandate business, but it was a point that Romney couldn’t really match. All he could do was offer up his weak federalism argument – and now that he’s showing some weakness on the subject, expect the attacks to continue.

Perry hit Romney on immigration, perhaps seeking to turn the tide on an issue that’s clearly hurt the Texas governor. Perry came right out and said it: “Illegal aliens are coming here because of jobs and the people who hire them should be held accountable.” Turning to Romney, Perry accused him flat out of hiring illegal aliens to work his property.

It’s the same accusation that John McCain used to sting Romney in 2007-08 so effectively, and Romney showed that it still hurts by glaring at Perry and replying “I’ve never hired an illegal alien in my life.”

Wow – the two of them squared off, interrupting each other at every opportunity and all but getting physical on the matter. Romney even weakly called on Cooper to intervene, but the liberal moderator/referee had to be loving the entertainment value of it all.

Step in to stop this? Are you crazy, Mitt? This is the clip that all the networks are going to be showing for days – why would Cooper interfere?

CNN just doubled its viewership for the next week – and Romney’s bound to be sore tomorrow.

Rick Perry’s Gas

Of all the candidates, Rick Perry may have had the most riding on this debate, and it appeared that he was more “prepared” for this one than the others. Perry was able to lean on his recently proposed energy plan to get him through the rough spots – and coming from the energy producing state of Texas, he speaks credibly on the subject.

Perry returned time and again to his all-encompassing energy plan, and was fairly effective in the effort. “We have a treasure trove beneath our feet (nice visual, Rick), and this administration is preventing us from getting to it.”

Perry wanted to talk about it so much that he would change the subject when asked to weigh-in on something else. When Cooper protested that Perry wasn’t addressing his latest probing question, Perry replied, “You get to ask the questions, and I get to decide how to answer them.”

Et tu, Anderson!

Perry still suffers from an articulation deficit, but Tuesday night he was passionate, and his people-over-Washington message was more effective than it has been up to this point. Clearly, Perry’s best debate performance to date – perhaps leaving the door cracked for a bit of a comeback.

Ron Paul and peace through liberty

Ron Paul inspired plenty of gasps when Cooper read off the list of federal agencies that Paul proposed to eliminate within a year (with his economic plan), engendering mostly approving nods from the audience and a bit of a sly smile from Paul himself.

Paul basically reiterated his standard claims of achieving peace through alternative means – essentially, pulling back America’s military presence across the globe and generally staying out of other countries’ business (he said he’d eliminate ALL foreign aid, including to Israel).

He didn’t delve too deeply into the details of his plan, arguing that much good could be achieved through letting free markets handle problems (such as with healthcare, which he was FINALLY asked about).

Paul has the most consistent limited government message of any of the Republicans, by far. If packaged in another politician’s body, one could see the ideas really catching on. Appearances aren’t everything, but Paul’s somewhat frail physical presence doesn’t exactly project an aura of strength. A shallow observation, perhaps, but set next to Herman Cain’s booming baritone voice, Paul looks kind of diminutive.

He’ll keep up with his calls for liberty – and we’ll all be better off for them.

The second-tier and the Land of Oz

Not far from the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas is the MGM Grand Hotel, which, not surprisingly, has a life-sized mock-up of the Wizard of Oz at the hotel’s main entrance. With the remaining candidates on stage Tuesday night, it almost seemed like they were part of the façade – because it would take an act of the Wizard for them to win the presidential nomination.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Such is the presidential prospects of Dorothy (Michele Bachmann), the Scarecrow (Rick Santorum), the Cowardly Lion (Newt Gingrich) and last but not least, the Tin Man (Jon Huntsman, who skipped the debate and wasn’t missed).

Note: The Wicked Witch is in the Democratic Party – just pick your favorite of the many possibilities who would fit the part.

Bachmann is becoming less and less relevant as time goes on, unable to provide a reason why she should be chosen over the more appealing governors with executive experience – or even the conservative minority businessman with a fascinating life history and a brilliant gift for gab.

She just appears lost.

For his part, Rick Santorum seems to get better and better as time goes on. If Herman Cain is somehow knocked off his pedestal (and Perry doesn’t jump right up), it’s conceivable that people might give Santorum another look. He said he was one of the few on stage who didn’t favor TARP (which brought protests from Cain, Romney and Perry, not coincidentally), a point that helped him stand out.

Santorum did say he wouldn’t eliminate one-dime from the defense budget if he were elected president… bad answer, Rick.

Finally, Newt Gingrich continues to be the candidate who’s most comfortable phrasing every answer the way he wants to – even talking about faith in public life with his very questionable personal history hanging over him.

But Gingrich’s time has passed. Simply put, the baggage is just too heavy, Newt. A clever vice presidential pick? Maybe.

At the final bell

The Las Vegas Western Republican Debate was certainly entertaining – good theater – but only in a morbid kind of way. Politics is mean enough as it is without the punching match that occurred on Tuesday night.

The most positive development for Tea Partiers and conservatives may be the fact that Mitt Romney was looking for his mouthpiece at the final bell – but it also showed that there’s a long way to go, and things could easily change again.

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Great analysis

Good analysis and thanks for keeping it unbiased.  I personally really enjoyed the debate because I think the back-and-forth bickering really brought out the true colors of several of the candidates.  

Rick Perry came out swinging at the bell and went toe to toe with Romney, but he appeared to be reaching in an attempt to hurt him, and quite frankly looked like a bully.  BTW author - "articulation deficit" is pure genius - I'm stealing it.  ;-)

On the other side of the exchange, Romney finally lost some of his cool and showed how bitter he can get (the comment about Perry's debate performance) and I think that gave the public a good view of how Romney probably is behind closed doors, which wasn't pretty.  He's a slimy guy.

Cain got a ton of grief for 9-9-9, and probably made it worse by talking about apples and oranges.  (the CNN panel after the debate actually had apples and oranges on hand)  This was Cain's big chance to clarify some of the questions people have had about 9-9-9 and he failed miserably at that.  Which is strange - I'm a big fan of the fair tax and I actually think 9-9-9 is a logical step towards that, but for some reason everyone in the media is saying it's "confusing", which seems hysterical considering the state of our tax code, which no person in the world complete understands.  Still - Cain got his butt handed to him and since 9-9-9 was really the only weapon in Cain's arsenal, I would be shocked if he didn't drop quickly in the polls now.

I actually thought Santorum did well this time around, although his war-monger position of not wanting to cut 1 penny from the defense budget is hurting him now.  He's like Guiliani of 2008 - he conveys false patriotism - that anything the USA does is morally right, but it comes off that he's not capable of independent critical thought, which is a non-starter for a presidential candidate.

Gengrich is a joy to watch - his quick wit and understanding of history makes him seem to be the second most intelligent person up there.  Plus he gets Bachmann gaffawing with everything he says.  Unfortunately his moral history will make him a non-starter with conservatives.

The true winner was Ron Paul.  During the debate last night, he was like EF Hutton - when he started talking all the bickering and cross-channel communications stopped and people listened to what he had to say.  He has been setting the agenda since the beginning, despite the media ignoring him, but I think he's finally starting to get traction (and credit!). The cameras panned to the audience several times when Ron Paul was speaking, and he not only got applause, but a very convincing head nod from the majority of the attendees, including in some cases the people on stage.  His plan to cut 5 cabinet agencies and save 1 Trillion in the first year seemed like a tipping point - it's shocking but up until now NO othe candidate has talked about closing down agencies despite them all uttering the buzz phrase "smaller government".  If any other candidate had proposed it, the media would be in an utter uproar, but because it was Ron Paul it might take a while for the true impact of the good Doctor's plan to come to the surface.  But I think the Restore America plan is going to really resonate with people, even if it has to happen by word of mouth due to the media blackout.  It just FEELS like the first step in a new direction that will bring the country back, and I think a ton of people are going to find it motivating.

Excellent Debate Analysis

However, you are much too kind to Cain. IMHO, Cain was the biggest loser. Santorum may have mortally wounded Cain when he referenced this report:

"Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan would raise taxes on 84 percent of U.S. households, according to an independent analysis released Tuesday, contradicting claims by the Republican presidential candidate that most Americans would see a tax cut.

Among those in the middle, households making between $40,000 and $50,000 would see their taxes increase by an average of $4,400, the report said. Those making between $50,000 and $75,000 would see their annual tax bill go up by an average of $4,326."